Jacob Heilbrunn / The New York Times – 2006-10-20 22:45:22
The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal,
And the Selling of the Iraq War
By Michael Isikoff and David Corn (463 pp. Crown Publishers. $25.95)
(October 15, 2006) — In the fall of 2002, Dick Cheney assembled some of his favorite intellectuals, including George Will, Bernard Lewis and Victor Davis Hanson, at the vice-presidential residence in Northwest Washington to discuss the coming Iraq war.
Cheney focused on Hanson’s book The Soul of Battle, which profiled George Patton, William Tecumseh Sherman and the Theban general Epaminondas to argue that they may have employed ruthless tactics that led their contemporaries to condemn them, but that each was later vindicated by history. As the evening wore on, it became apparent that Cheney viewed himself as one such leader.
In Hubris, Michael Isikoff and David Corn chronicle the Bush administration’s delusional march to war. Though there has been a deluge of works denouncing the follies of the military and the administration, Isikoff and Corn cover somewhat different terrain. They offer the most comprehensive account of the White House’s political machinations, aimed at convincing Congress and the public that Iraq posed a dire threat.
Isikoff is an investigative correspondent for Newsweek and the author of Uncovering Clinton, and Corn is an editor at The Nation and the author of The Lies of George W. Bush. The authors, who have interviewed key politicians and government officials, supply a lot of new information. They show that in many ways the administration became the dupe of its own propaganda. Though their narrative spins out of control by the end, much of the book makes for fascinating reading.
As Isikoff and Corn demonstrate, the administration’s first mission was to snow Congress. At every step, Cheney took the lead, convincing the four top leaders of Congress — Dennis Hastert, Richard Gephardt, Trent Lott and Tom Daschle — that war was unavoidable.
Together with George Tenet, the director of central intelligence, Cheney and the lawmakers gathered in the House Intelligence Committee briefing room, where they examined photos of what looked like new construction at what Cheney declared were Iraqi nuclear weapons sites. ‘When the Congressional leaders departed that briefing,’ Isikoff and Corn write, ‘they looked grim.’
Cheney also tackled the job of persuading a skeptical House majority leader, Dick Armey. ‘Trust me on this, Dick,’ Cheney told him. ‘When I get done with this briefing, you’re going to be with me.’ Armey was perplexed: ‘He didn’t say, ‘You’re going to be with us.’ He didn’t say, ‘You’re going to be with the president.’ He said, ‘You’re going to be with me.’
After Cheney showed him a bunch of pictures of putative WMD sites in Iraq, Armey opted to give him the benefit of the doubt, even though he didn’t find the briefing very persuasive.
To buttress the administration’s case, Cheney not only visited the CIA to pound away at agency analysts for failing to come up with links between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, but also drew on a secret intelligence unit — if the term is not too grandiose — that was overseen by Douglas Feith, then under secretary of defense.
Feith’s researchers, David Wurmser and Michael Maloof, who were both proteges of the prominent neoconservative Richard Perle, spent months combing through raw intelligence reports to discover the truths that had somehow eluded the entire intelligence community. In a small windowless office at the Pentagon, they created ‘giant wall charts’ detailing the intimate links between Iraq and Al Qaeda.
Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary at the time, was bowled over: he “was especially taken with the spaghetti lines that Maloof had drawn between the Abu Nidal terrorist organization in Iraq and training camps in Lebanon.”
From Lebanon, the lines then went to Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Isikoff and Corn report that these analyses, such as they were, made a big splash at the White House. If anyone complained that solid evidence was lacking, Feith’s team was unmoved: ‘The Feith analysts were essentially claiming that because Al Qaeda and Iraq had joined together in a clandestine partnership to attack the United States, there would be little, if any, evidence to prove the conspiracy.’
Where Isikoff and Corn themselves go astray is in their own obsessive focus on Judith Miller and The New York Times, as well as on the story of Joseph Wilson, Valerie Plame Wilson and Cheney’s former chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, who is under indictment for obstruction of justice and perjury.
The attention they lavish on both the Miller and the Plame cases is out of all proportion to their true significance. These chapters reach a level of detail that is simply eye- glazing. To read Isikoff and Corn, one would think that Miller (whose conduct was bad enough) and The Times were almost uniquely responsible for abetting the administration’s march to war. [Says this reviewer on behalf of the NYT]
Far more interesting is Isikoff and Corn’s exploration of the mental world that the administration inhabits. They recount that in December 2001, Scooter Libby read aloud to a visiting journalist a famous passage from Winston Churchill’s memoirs about being named prime minister: “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.” Libby declared that these words could be applied to Cheney after Sept. 11. Hubris? Megalomania may be more like it.
Jacob Heilbrunn, a frequent contributor to the Book Review, is writing a book about neoconservatism.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
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